The South African blueberry industry is in a period of robust growth, due to high demand from the UK and the EU for blueberries in particular, as well as nascent domestic interest. It has been bolstered by a similar (if earlier) growth spurt in Australia, where many of the new cultivars used in the South African blueberry industry were developed.
Three companies dominate blueberry production in South Africa: Berryworld South Africa, United Exports and Haygrove SA, an affiliate of UK-based Haygrove.
Each company provides its growers with its own line of licensed blueberry plants, mostly focusing on low chill unit blueberries. Berryworld South Africa has the licensing rights to plants developed by the University of Florida, like Snowchaser and Jewel, as well as new Australian varieties.
United Exports has invested in the Australian Early Blue breeding programme which is responsible for the OzBlu series. These plants are based on the Southern Highbush blueberry, an evergreen blueberry. The company produces blueberries worldwide (Chile, Peru, the USA, Morocco) and in South Africa, United Exports has about 20 producers, roughly equally divided between traditional berry-producing regions in the south and newer regions like Gauteng, Limpopo and Northwest Province. United Exports has been involved in stonefruit, citrus and table grape production for 15 years and new blueberry producers for the company in South Africa come from this pool of growers.
Spreading its production geographically and growing the berries out of the rainy season in each area, United Exports is able to produce blueberries in South Africa 52 weeks of the year, says Roger Horak, managing director of United Exports. “Production is increasing dramatically, driven by demand. There has been phenomenal growth domestically; we hope to develop the local market through our Ozblu brand. Our varieties are very similar throughout the year, therefore we provide the consumer with a similar product and a consistent experience.”
He adds that since it’s a new product on South African supermarket shelves, as well as an expensive one, they want consumers to associate Ozblu with tasty, sweet berries throughout the year. “The new low chill varieties are off the charts better in taste with better sugars and better flavours. Previously berries were often soft, mushy and acidic.”
The company expects to at least double its production with 1000ha of blueberries planted throughout this year, bringing the total area of production to 2000ha. Through increased production, it is hoped that the price of blueberries will come down locally over the next 24 to 36 months. It has been said that blueberries are where avocados were 35 years ago: three decades ago avocados were a subtropical niche fruit, not the staple food it has become today. Is that accurate? “It seems a very fair comment,” laughs Horak. “It is a great product, an excellent snack food.”
United Export produces approximately 2,500t annually, two-thirds of that in the new berry-producing areas in the north of the country. The harvest season starts in the hotter north before moving south, peaking over August/September. Its production has increased dramatically over the past three years – it established the first plantings in 2013 and exported the first blueberries to the UK (its biggest market) the year after. Horak foresees a 25 to 30% increase in global demand.
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